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HOUSE OF THE SPIRIT THE WORK AND COLLECTION OF DANNY SIMMONS


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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Page, Donna. House of the spirit : the work and collection of Danny Simmons/ essay by Donna Page. 124 -- 1st ed. p. cm. 22,5 x 30,5 Published to accompany an exhibition held at the QCC Art Gallery, the City University of New York, Bayside, New York, Mar. 19-May 7, 2010. ISBN 978-0-9799382-4-5 (alk. paper) LCCN 2010003326 1. Art, African--Exhibitions. 2. Art--Private collections--New York (State)--New York--Exhibitions. 3. Simmons, Danny--Art collections--Exhibitions. 4. Simmons, Danny--Exhibitions. I. Simmons, Danny. II. QCC Art Gallery. III. Title. IV. Title: Work and collection of Danny Simmons. N7391.65.P335 2010 709.6'074747243--dc22 2010003326 All Rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means now known or to be invented, including photocopying, recording and information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. Design: Ana Martínez Printer: Editorial MIC. León. Spain Photography: Robert Lorenzson with the collaboration of Mark Blackshear, Stefan Schiske, Hayden Roger Celestin Special thanks to the Spanierman Gallery, LLC.

QCC ART GALLERY PRESS © 2010


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HOUSE OF THE SPIRIT THE WORK AND COLLECTION OF DANNY SIMMONS Donna Page

QCC ART GALLERY The City University of New York


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CONTENTS 11

Acknowledgments

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Conjurations

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The Collection

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House of the Spirit: The Work and Collection of Danny Simmons

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Background

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Collecting

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Work in Progress

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Theme and variations: collecting African art

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Western Sudan

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West Africa

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Guinea Coast

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Central Africa

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A Sum of Parts


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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS THE ART GALLERY OF QUEENSBOROUGH COMMUNITY COLLEGE is pleased to sponsor this exhibition and its accompanying catalog. House of the Spirit: The Work and Collection of Danny Simmons represents more than ten years in the life of this influential artist, philanthropist, and collector. His paintings and drawings have been widely exhibited throughout the United States. He manages The Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn, and chairs the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, which funds numerous art groups. We thank Mr. Simmons for opening his studio to us, not once but many times in preparation for this exhibition. Our appreciation also extends to The Corridor Gallery and Rush Philanthropic Arts staff, Nina Ziefvert, Manager of Exhibition Programs, and Sameeh Alderazi, Gallery Assistant, for their assistance in compiling photos. We are also grateful to Lisa Scandaliato, Assistant Director at the QCC Art Gallery, for her help with this exhibition. Private collectors loaned paintings by Simmons for this exhibition. We are grateful to them for their cooperation in making part of their collection available for the duration of this show. We extend thanks to Donna Page for curating this exhibition and for the catalog essay. Providing background information on Simmons' artwork and his African art collection, she explains some of the threads that link these seemingly divergent bodies of work. She has previously written for QCC Art Gallery publications, including Artists and Patrons in Traditional African Cultures (2005) and A Cameroon World (2007). Two other scholars contributed separate introductions, each in their own area of expertise. Leonard Kahan is a curator, appraiser, artist, and writer. Most recently, he co-authored the book Surfaces: Color, Substances and Ritual Application on African Sculpture. In his introduction to this essay, he provides an overview of the African art in Simmons' collection. Leslie King-Hammond is Graduate Dean Emeritus and Founding Director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. In her introduction, she places Danny Simmons within the contemporary art milieu, elucidating some of the endeavors he has included within his career path. Thanks and great appreciation go to the President of Queensborough Community College, Dr. Eduardo Marti, for his ongoing dedication and support of the QCC art Gallery. Faustino Quintanilla

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CONJURATIONS A PERSON ADMIRED OR NOTED FOR NOBILITY, outstanding achievements and courage in the face of an extraordinary challenge is looked upon in our society as a hero. More often than not the hero would like to remain unrecognized, nameless, anonymous - even invisible to the world at large, which is usually in awe of such character and courage. Each hero believes that they are unremarkable and that the heroic act is something they were supposed to do. It was just part of the “job” of being human. Cultural activists are unique members of this very elite class of human beings who believe that what they have achieved or exacted in society is not an act of greatness but an act of humanity helping another human being or community in need. Danny Simmons, inadvertently through his kaleidoscopic role in the arts as a collector, curator, art activist, community organizer, gallery owner, television producer, philanthropist and---most importantly---working artist, finds himself caught in a cultural conundrum for which there is no simple answer. The optimal choice would be to focus on his life as a painter but Simmons' sense of social justice and political consciousness, informed by the strength of his upbringing and family values derived from ‘Depression - culture’ and parents, prompts him to seize opportunities to make the voices and presence of underserved and underrepresented people become a critical priority in his life. Simmons' role as a cultural warrior is fitting, needed and essential given the contributions of his innovative creativity in the production and execution of numerous public and community projects that have garnered for him creditable praise and honors. However, the real struggle for Danny Simmons is the constant battle for recognition in the mainstream art world as an artist. It is in the arena of being a black visual artist that the reality of that struggle becomes relentless. In my research on African American visual artists I have repeatedly stated that history has treated artists of color and women with selective amnesia and benign neglect. The noted critic Michelle Wallace has observed while studying the careers of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Bob Thompson that “When all is said and done, black people just aren't suppose to aspire to become masters of fine art. They just aren't… What is more, the belief that blacks are not supposed to aspire to be master painters is as true now as it was in the 1920's or the 1960's.” The problem is still palpable today in a twenty-first century America, confounded with having elected its first African American president, yet, still actively denying opportunities of inclusion to serious artists of African descent seeking to make a contribution to the cultural legacy of this nation. Wallace's astute observations revealed how“… the paramount problem is not too much controversy and censure. No matter how successful she (he) appears to be, the big hurdle for the black visual artist is too much public neglect - that is too small an audience, too few collectors, too little access to the few powerful dealers, too little media coverage, and too little fame. The reasons for this studied neglect have everything to do with the programmatic suppression of African-American culture.” It is also a large reflection of the art world's resistance to see a larger vision of an American aesthetic that has the capacity for the inclusion of a broad range of artistically diverse visions.

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Standards of excellence and standards of acceptance have always been at odds with each other whenever the issue of race influences the criteria of measurement and evaluation. Danny Simmons is very cognizant of the dynamics crucial to achieve respect as an artist. Given the evolution and historical development of the artist of African descent, Simmons has elected to focus his attention on one of the most difficult elements to articulate in his work - the spiritual presence of otherworldly forces in Nature. Compounding his agenda is the complexity of expressing modernist abstract themes and concepts of Africaness as it related to the spiritual realm of the African American experience. The discourse and debates about African identity and its relationship to Africa have a long history in the writings of W.E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and Alain Locke to mention a few. Nnamdi Elleh in his research on the impact of Africa on the development of an African American aesthetic asserts that, “Despite the large number of artists who participated in its formation, African American modernism did not develop in chronological stages as a single cohesive cultural movement. Instead, its history suggests a period of transition from ideas learned in debates about Africa and African American sociopolitical experiences, to another period, when the leading African American modernist artists felt comfortable enough to start inscribing and translating what they learned about their African heritage into their works.” The difficult question for the African American artist was how to express or interpret this content in a meaningful context or stylistic modality. Simmons became a collector in part so that he could immerse himself in the process first hand, to study the diverse vocabularies and languages used by African people to visually communicate the symbols, standards and values of life, family, community, and the nature of the universe. Each object in his collection is a type of “container” or signifier that functions as a locus for the embodiment of a spiritual entity or life force. Simmons channels his intellect, thematic concepts and aesthetic imprint through the use of abstracted pictographs, ideographs, and scripts or syllabary which are the languages, characters, symbols and signs that constitute African grammar and systems of visual communication created by Africans. Each object in Simmons collection, and in the thousands of collections both public and private throughout the world, embodies inscribed and encoded information that defines and gives meaning to the complexity of a world in which Africans live and interpret, through artifacts which they do not view as art. These works are created to inform and support the lived and spiritual worldview as perceived by the African mind. Western attitudes have long resisted the reality of an African alphabet and systems of writing because they did not conform to or reflect Western standards of communication. Simmons has spent the past twenty years as a student, through the process of direct observation, in the midst of works executed by ancestral and traditional masters. Seeking to comprehend and execute paintings that bridge the divide between Middle Passage slave experiences and contemporary realities, Simmons found identities of African agency, which he fused with modernist traditions to create majestic abstract compositions through gesture, color, and atmospheric space. The artistry of Danny Simmons speaks to the essence of a man who functions not so much as a hero as suggested earlier but as a conjurer. One who appears to make a kind of “magic” from the seen and unseen ordinary manifestations of life in the African American world. Simmons is a member of a

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growing legacy of African American conjurers such as Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Betye Saar, Aminah Robinson, Jonathan Green, Amalia Amaki, Joyce Scott, Willie Birch and David Hammons who each have evolved their own signature style for evoking the aesthetic psyche of the African diasporic ancestral spirit. Poet Ishmael Reed illuminates the catalytic motivation of these artists: black power poem a spectre is haunting america - the spectre of hoodooism all the powers of old america have entered into a holy alli ance to exorcise this spectre : allen ginsberg timothy leary richard nixon richard daley time magazine the new york/ review of books and the underground press. may the best church win. Shake hands now and come/ out conjuring Ishmael Reed (1966) While the names of the political and cultural players have changed with the currency of time, the intent and focus remain the same. The arts activism and painted conjurations of Simmons reveal and conceal shapes, forms, energy and events that give meaning and purpose to a life of artistry, innovation, spirituality, public service and humanity, which are the core of Danny Simmons' universe. Leslie King-Hammond

Endnotes 1. Michele Wallace, “The Culture War within, the Culture Wars: RACE” in Brian Wallis, Mariame Weems and Philip Yenawine, eds. Art Matters - How the Culture Wars Changed America, New York University Press, New York, 1999 p.169 2. Ibid. p.175 3. Nnamdi Elleh, “A Continent without Barders,” in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, Embracing the Muse-Africa and African American Art, New York, 2004. p. 14 4. Dudley Randall, ed., The Black Poets - A New Anthology, Bantam, New York; 1971, p. 288

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THE COLLECTION THIS EXHIBITION CONTAINS objects that provide access to a range of African art unusual in one collection. Danny Simmons came to African art from a particular perspective. To put it succinctly, he has collected the African objects in their full form; that is with the materials, attachments, and surfaces intact. It is not only the sculptural qualities that interested him, but also the use of the complete creative, aesthetic, and symbolic statement. A visitor walking into Simmons' home and studio is immediately struck by the sheer variety of pieces, from masks and statues to calabashes, costumes, leather bags, and metal amulets. Their rich surfaces, materials, and textures augment their sculptural forms. These types of pieces have too often been excluded from African art collections in Europe and the United States, as not representing 'pure' form. It had been commonly accepted that a shining, rubbed patina was the most desirable quality of an African carving. It was considered a most collectable and prestigious quality of any piece. Simmons' collection makes a good argument for the opposite; that the sculptural form along with the materials---dirt, pigments, horns, textiles, oils, feathers, metals, nails, and cord---act in unison to provide the maximum reference to the function, history, and appeal of an object. Simmons has accepted the total environment of the African context as relevant to the meaning and aesthetics of each piece. As artifacts and memorabilia do in many artists' studios, the African objects share equal space and attention with Simmons' paintings. They occupy the rooms, walls, and furniture alike. His living space, his studio space and the African art, sometimes displayed in small shrine-like groupings, merge and blend into one another, challenging one to sense where one aspect of Simmons' life ends and the other begins. To experience Simmons collection is not to see an exhibit of African objects on shelves and white walls. It is to see how he integrates it into daily life, living with it not as 'pure' art but functioning art, for dance and ritual, or as part of a shrine, as an art that offers daily spiritual sustenance. Masks and statues are not only skilled, beautiful and sometimes profound carvings, but also bear symbolic and material references brimming with carriers of meaning that we in the West are still researching and identifying. Each of these objects is part of a mythology, a local religion, the history and narrative of its culture. Particularly with the Fon and related cultures, Simmons has gathered and preserved intact objects that were once considered outside the interest of collectors. In this setting they seem to emanate some of the power with which they were once endowed. This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to view and appreciate how the multiple materials combine in some of these objects. Many reflect both the skill of a carver and the imaginative power of the diviner that empowered the object, to initiate it as a functioning entity. We are grateful to Danny Simmons for his skill in assembling this collection and his willingness to present it to the public.

Leonard Kahan

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Danny Simmons in his home, 2009. Photo by Faustino Quintanilla


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HOUSE OF THE SPIRIT THE WORK AND COLLECTION OF DANNY SIMMONS PAINTINGS AND DRAWINGS BY DANNY SIMMONS, along with selected objects from his collection of African art are displayed together in this exhibition, inviting viewers to fully appreciate the echoes, evocative similarities and differences among the various bodies of work. Important to understanding the paintings of this prominent American artist and poet are the threads that connect him to his own history and that of the ancestral heritage to which he belongs. To view any artwork is to move through the work, so to speak, to reach an understanding of the artist's stance, history, and worldview. If the artist is also a collector, then his choices about which pieces to gather together may also illuminate his aesthetic philosophy. The reverse may be true as well, when the paintings incorporate specific images related to objects in the collection. More evanescent are connections that exist in the realm of visual symbolism, both in contemporary art and in age-old African idioms. So in Simmons' paintings, worlds beyond the flat surface of the canvas are both implied and revealed. To compare Simmons' paintings with some of the Fon objects in his collection, for instance, is to see the differences between them; the similarities are less obvious. It will be the task of this essay to explore both the paintings and the collection, viewing each as an expression of Simmons' individuality.

Background Danny Simmons was born August 17, 1953, in Jamaica, Queens. His mother Evelyn was an amateur painter. She was a graduate of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, with a degree in Sociology, and worked with the New York Parks Department supervising preschool children. It was she who introduced Danny to painting and drawing, teaching him basic techniques. His father, Daniel, was a Howard University graduate who held a master's degree in history with special emphasis on AfricanAmerican history. During Danny's youth, his father usually held two jobs. On weekdays he was a social worker and later a truant officer. He subsequently taught African-American Studies at Pratt University.

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On weekends, he worked with children, either at an orphanage in Queens or in a night center where kids played basketball and other sports. Danny often accompanied his father on these weekend jobs. In his private life, Daniel senior wrote verse as a means to comment on complex social issues. Thus, the first poems that young Danny heard were those of his father. During the early years, the family lived with Evelyn's parents. When Danny was four years old, his brother Russell was born, and the family moved into their own house in Jamaica, Queens. A large vacant lot across the street served as playground for Danny and the neighborhood boys who played football there. At that time, the area was not densely populated, and an expanse of wild, natural landscape backed the house. Here was freedom, as Danny and his friends spent all of their spare time in the woods building tree houses and sheds, and in season purloining fruit from the plenty on their neighbors' trees. His sense of belonging was rooted there, in that place. When Danny was 11, his brother Joseph was born. The family moved to a larger house in a residential neighborhood, probably a positive transition for the family. But, with no woods or open spaces, it was also an adjustment for the older boys. By that time in sixth grade, though, Danny was occupied with other things: sports, dancing, hip clothes, and girls! Those interests were interrupted when, at age 13, while playing basketball in the back yard of his home, Danny fell and broke his hip. At age 14, he again fell on ice and broke the other hip, and at 15 had some of the pins in his right hip removed. In total, he spent the better part of three years on crutches. The family placed him in a small, private school, St. Joseph's Episcopal Day School, where he spent eighth grade. By ninth grade he was on the mend, and enrolled at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, across the street from Queensborough Community College in Bayside, New York. For Danny, Cardozo High School was a politicizing experience. He became a member of the Black Student Union, but at the same time was also pushing limits and experimenting with drugs, something that would represent an ongoing struggle until the pattern was conquered.

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In 1978, Simmons graduated from New York University with a degree in Sociology and Social Work. In 1985 he graduated from Long Island University with a Master's degree in Public Policy Administration. During the next five years, he worked for the New York City Human Resources Administration, at the Fourteenth Street Welfare Center, delivering benefits to qualified recipients. In 1992, a 30-day stint at Hazelden drug and alchohol treatment center culminated in a successful rehabilitation that ended an addiction begun years earlier with dependence on pain pills after hip surgery. From 1994 to 1998, Simmons was employed as a drug counselor by the City of New York. Danny began experimenting with painting in the late 1970's. His first studio was in a brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He later moved to a loft in Williamsburg. In the 1980's, he began organizing shows for other artists, and by 1988 had opened his own exhibition space in the brownstone, calling it Sanctuary Gallery. By 1992, he had developed a body of his own work to show and in 1993 he partnered with Annext Gallery in Tribeca, where he had his first solo exhibition. In 1995, in collaboration with younger brothers Russell, by then a renowned music entrepreneur, and Joseph, of the group RUN-DMC, Danny started Rush Philanthropic, a fundraising organization whose goal is to benefit children, helping them develop autonomy by fostering interest in the expressive arts. At the affiliated Rush Arts Gallery in New York City, headed by Derrick Adams, and at The Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn, children are invited to come on weekends to create their own artwork. Through other programs, artists go into both charter schools and prisons to conduct art programs where none previously existed. Beneficiaries of Rush Philanthropic now include more than 50 arts organizations. By 2008, more than 11 million dollars in grant money had been raised from government organizations, The Carnegie Foundation, and private donors. Danny's collaboration with brother Russell resulted in Def Poetry Jam, first conceived as an opportunity for young poets to celebrate and compete using the spoken word. It subsequently appeared as an HBO production and in 2002 as Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. A collection of Danny's poetry, I Dreamed My

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People Were Calling But I Couldn't Find My Way Home was published in 2007. In it, he acknowledges his father as “the first poet I ever heard and admired.” Danny's novel, Three Days as the Crow Flies, a raucous trip through the 1980's East Village gallery scene, came out in 2004. The importance of language is also apparent in the titles that Simmons applies to his paintings and drawings. The words provide a way to interpret his visual images, revealing the direction of the artist's thoughts as the work was formed. In 1994, Simmons purchased a building in Brooklyn large enough to incorporate his studio and living space, as well as to provide a location for The Corridor Gallery, conceived to give several exhibitions per year to new and underrepresented artists. The space also serves as a performance venue for poets and filmmakers, a location for children's programs, and a community resource. His sense of community extends to service on the boards of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Public Library. He won a George Foster Peabody Award in 2003, for Def Poetry Jam. In 2004, he traveled to Ghana, one of a group of artists, for an exhibition sponsored by the NCA (National Conference of Artists) the oldest black arts organization in America, of which he was then chairman. In 2008, Governor David A. Paterson appointed Simmons to the New York State Council on the Arts, and in 2009 he was elected chairman of that group. In November 2008, he was presented with the Mayor's Award for Arts and Culture, for his role in establishing Rush Philanthropic and The Corridor Gallery. His work is represented at the United Nations in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in the offices of Chase Bank and Deutsche Bank, and in numerous private collections. In speaking about these various avenues and ventures, Simmons credits his mother for the attitude and advice that she conveyed to him: “Do what you want to do, not what someone expects you to do.”1

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Collecting About 20 years ago, while living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Simmons began collecting African sculpture. A Senufo Kponyugo (firespitter) mask and a Dan face mask were among his earliest acquisitions. At the time he started collecting, an African dealer named Nyabingi maintained several galleries and provided an education in the arts of the continent. Even then, Simmons was most attracted to objects with surface textures and material additions. The move to his studio building more than a decade ago afforded him more space and he began collecting in earnest. Many of the objects that he has gathered display his affinity for materials, together with a compelling sense of spiritual identity. In many of the African pieces, the totality of the carved figure with its added material---shells, horns, fur, bones, cording, and pigment---comes to have meaning beyond the discrete items themselves. In Simmons' words, “they touch on the mystery of humans trying to connect with the spirit world. To me, they represent someone's route to being in touch with the spirits.” Within the studio, the proximity of the collection to Simmons' painting area is intimate. The objects occupy space within both the living and working areas of the studio; paintings are created in one area, but sculpture occupies part of the adjacent space and the two means of expression powerfully interact on the senses. The relationship between Simmons' painting and the objects in his collection has changed over time. Some of the early paintings contain visual images taken directly from specific African objects. Gradually his intent changes, as Simmons attempts to access the spiritual through the making of paintings. Abstraction eventually offers him more relevance than representation. He notes that “the key to creativity is intellectual, but first and foremost emotional and spiritual. The heart of being an artist is not in your facility, but in how you feel about things.“

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Work in Progress Visual artists often begin as seekers, hoping to find a way to come to terms with themselves in the world. They try to find ways to express feelings about their (our) human condition by developing a vocabulary of form and color that can communicate meaning, first to themselves and then to a viewer. The artist develops further as he absorbs the output of predecessors, culling vast archives of art history for “ancestors� whose work seems relevant to the artist's current needs. As he began to paint, Danny Simmons search took him first to twentieth century European masters, particularly Joan Miro, Picasso, and Salvador Dali. Those choices capture the two poles of twentieth century art---Surrealism on the one hand, and structured Cubist form-making on the other. The former connects one to the subconscious and to dream states, the latter to rational, geometric logic; seemingly contradictory impulses. A relevant similarity connects these two movements, however; one that Simmons was later able to explore. Artists in both movements employed appropriation as a new source for form-making. Surrealists looked at and borrowed idioms from the artwork of children and mental patients, believing that they closely revealed the workings of the subconscious mind. The Cubists, particularly Picasso, sought inspiration in the art of Africa, with its reductive approach to the human face and body, as a way of moving beyond academic representation. For Simmons, the artistic ancestor who drew together these impulses was the Cuban artist, Wifredo Lam. The son of African-Chinese parents, Lam studied painting first in Havana, then in Spain. He was influenced by both Surrealism and the Cubism of Picasso, with whom he developed a friendship. Exhibitions of his work in Paris and New York established him as an international presence in the art world. With the advent of World War II, he returned to Cuba with the Surrealist poet Andre Breton, among others. Lam was also influenced by Afro-Cuban Santeria religion, and felt that his mission was to reveal the significance of African culture to the world. He produced works in various media, including gouache, oil, lithography, and etching. In Simmons' collection is an aquatint by Lam entitled

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Rabordaille, one of a suite of prints executed during the years 1969-1971 as illustrations for Annonciation, a book of poems by d'Aime Cesair (Fig. 1). In it, forms derived from Cubism are literally stretched and reshaped to provoke an emotional response. The life and work of Wifredo Lam provided a compelling model for Simmons, giving him a key to the problem of combining intense visual, emotional, and spiritual impulses in a single work.

1. WIFREDO LAM (1902-1982) Rabordaille (1969-1971) Etching and aquatint, plate size 19 1⁄4 x 25 3⁄4 in. One of a series of seven prints created for Annonciation a book of poetry by d’Amié Césaire Collection of Danny Simmons

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2. The Complicated and Ongoing Search for Suitable Objects of Worship Oil on canvas, 54 x 40 in., 1997

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Simmons' paintings from the 1990's present us with a visual lexicon, within which one can read references to both African and twentieth century European and American art. The Complicated and Ongoing Search for Suitable Objects of Worship (1997) contains elements of this vocabulary (Fig. 2). At the top, an inverted horned creature framed in white was inspired by the horned Senufo Kponyugo mask then in the artist's possession. Around that form, a series of dark marks on orange ground shape-shifts from background into a bat-like foreground figure, and coiled snake. The title of this work spells out yet another aspect of his painting---the search for place and meaning. Also from 1997, The Division of Heaven and Earth retains the brushwork, gestural line and color of earlier paintings, even as the content becomes more abstract (Fig. 3). Horizontally divided color fields

3. The Division of Heaven and Earth Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in., 1997

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suggest earth below and sky above. White dots mark the separation of the two, calling to mind rows of white beads or cowries. In Simmons' novel Three Days as the Crow Flies, the main character, a sometime hustler named Crow, tries his hand at painting and loses himself in the process. Crow started slowly smearing a glob of blue across the top of the canvas. As his hand held the brush, his mind began to move beyond the act itself, becoming all hand and eye. Almost instinctively trancelike, he began covering the top of the canvas with disconnected yet harmonious strokes of blue. At first, to his eye, the slashes appeared random, but as his hand led him in, he understood that they formed a subtle but complex interconnection... The room he was in began to fade from his consciousness, and all that was left was the need to create a compelling sky. He became that sky. And as his hand and brush found the empty spaces between the blue, he filled them not only with yellow but also with himself. Then, from somewhere else, the yellow was being mixed with red as the sky cried out in brilliant orange tones. Crow was no longer painting but had become a vessel that brought the canvas and life together.2 This passage, ostensibly about a fictional character, might also describe a process of creation familiar to many artists, including Simmons. It characterizes art-making as at once directed by and directing the artist who, at some point, has no choice but to surrender to the dictates of the medium. In The Painter, a work from 1997, a segmented male figure with nails impaled in his leg reaches up in a seeming act of defiance to paint the sun (Fig. 4). His mask-like face displays a grimace and a single Cyclopean eye. The red, orange, and yellow pigmentation add emotional resonance to this painting, a visual reference to Danny's own broken and pinned legs when he was a teenager. A second inspiration for this image was the kinship that Simmons felt for Kongolese nkisi n'kondi. These human effigies bristling with nails are themselves a metaphor for beneficial action motivated by pain, as each nail served to record an action or to goad the spirit within the effigy to act on behalf of its owner. Beyond these influences, this painting also seems to reference Picasso, particularly the artist and model series in which a painter reaches out, brush in hand, to touch his creation.

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4. The Painter Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in., 1997

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In many paintings from the 1990's, central characters co-exist within abstract passages that surround and sometimes envelop the figures, as if threatening to overwhelm them. Representational elements are pulled and distorted, broken into cell-like units, pigmented in emotionally charged hues. Along with this is a narrative content, at once serious and ironic, that reaches back into personal history and that of African people in America. Social commentary is one element among many carried into these images by their titles. A case in point is the 1993 painting, Tied to the Whipping Post (Fig. 5). In it, a segmented female figure with arms upraised and a mask-like face seems to be tied, amusingly, to two parking meters. The title, though, offers a more ironic and menacing interpretation, referring to punishments once delivered to recalcitrant slaves in this country. This sense of assault is reiterated in the background of the painting, where a series of red, slashing brushstrokes are overlaid with black and white linear “whips�. From 2000 to 2002, in a series of works on paper and canvas called Artwork From the Book of Spells, Simmons plays with titles based upon folk beliefs, voodoo, and diaspora history. These works combine symbolic mark-making with washes of color that partially obscure underlying forms---shapes that are both hidden and revealed, like unresolved emotions. Dr. Gris-Gris Book of Potent Spells and Portents (Fig. 6) and Spell to Rekindle Lost Love (Fig. 7) are examples. One painting from that series, Sold Auction Lot 2001-1 Male Nigra, becomes a commentary on the institution of slavery, marking the crucible through which Africans entered this country (Fig. 8). The title carries a double meaning, according to Simmons; the subtext refers to the contemporary art auction system that often benefits sellers and galleries to the exclusion of the artist who created the work. In both interpretations, owners benefit and workers loose the fruit of their labor.

5. Tied to the Whipping Post Oil on canvas, 72 x 72 in., 1993

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6. Dr. Gris-Gris Book of Potent Spells & Portents Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 x 72 in., 2001

Dr. Gris-Gris Book of Potent Spells & Portents Detail

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The bitterness of the title is echoed in black, blood-like runnels of paint that trail down the central images. An excerpt from one of Simmons' poems, The Jigaboo Waltz, underscores the long-term effects on the African-American community that followed slavery in the United States: I've been force fed here / and in your books that absent me from history / that tell me I began with slavery and was set free / into this rotting abyss to dance the Jigaboo waltz / to repeat and reinvent shuffling along into the dark of now /…3 The script-like notations in this painting and others from the Book of Spells series open them to a wide range of interpretation, suggesting ancient writing, hieroglyphs, secret directions, or a shaman's scratching in the sand. In contemporary terms, mark-making grew out of the surrealist movement, as a way of accessing the subconscious mind, linking it to gestural strokes of hand and wrist, free from acculturated dictates of “correct” modes of drawing. It was seen as a liberating element in mid- to late-twentieth century American art. Proponents like Mark Tobey felt this approach to be a direct link to and means of expressing spirituality within a work of art. Automatic writing, the gestural stroke, in the hands of other painters signaled defiance. Another painter active in the 1980's East Village gallery scene was Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like Simmons, he was a self-trained artist who brought various strands of art into his work, including elements of street graffiti. An article about Basquiat's influences prompted Danny to investigate the work of Cy Twombly, another gestural painter. In Twombly's paintings, calligraphic mark-making integrated word fragments, poetry, and gesture in surface patterns of great complexity. In Spell to Rekindle Lost Love, Simmons' jottings record the path of his hand (Fig. 7).

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7. Spell to Rekindle Lost Love Mixed media on paper, 22 x 30 in., 2002 Collection of Chris and Rhonda Matheison

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8. Sold Auction Lot 2001 1 Male Nigra Oil, wax, pigment, charcoal on canvas, 36 x 48 in., 2000 Collection of James Dunne

Sold Auction Lot 2001 Detail

1 Male Nigra

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Gestures, loops, and wires of line become threads connecting gestural marks to precurser alphabet numerical systems. From the layered background, suggestions of light appear in the distance. Many of the paintings from the Book of Spells series are reproduced in his 2004 novel, Three Days as the Crow Flies. Their titles include Spell to Remove Unwanted Affection, Spell to Keep the Others Out of Your Hut, Spell to Increase Virility, and Spell to Lighten One's Load. These various titles are a fanciful look at one aspect of Santeria, in which charms and incantations may be sought for help with a problem or infirmity. Santeria, a synthesis of Yoruba, Christian, and Dahomean belief systems, is spread throughout the African diaspora countries of Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Brazil, and the United States. It is related to the spiritual construct known as vodun (vodou, voodoo, hoodoo) brought by enslaved groups from Nigeria, Togo, and Dahomey (now Republic of Benin), who shared faith that vital energies exist in this world and that they can be harnessed for the benefit of humans. Their descendants now participate in rituals that echo practices of their ancestors. Thus, the Santeria-inflected titles of these paintings tie back into the same belief system that prompted production of Fon and Ewe objects in Simmons' collection, and even into the common ancestry that binds these locations. One of Simmons' poems, entitled The 12:50 to Negril, acknowledges that ancestry. It contains this stanza: Poised Still and breathless We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors offering timeless ritual across the bloodied ocean We bring you with us on yet another journey4 9. The First Annual HooDoo Breakfast Party Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in., 2002 Collection of Wolfgang ThĂźmler Photo by Stefan Schiske

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Dr. Gris-Gris Book of Potent Spells and Portents (Fig. 6) continues the Santeria reference, but reverses the order of paint application seen in the previous work. In this painting, gestural marks and signs are almost completely obscured by an over-layer of color that at once reveals and conceals the content of the painting. As befits the title, the wondrous things contained in any book of spells must be partially revealed ---to let the public know that they are present--- but also concealed because total revelation must occur only in consultation with the divination expert (Dr. Gris-Gris in this case). This concealed revelation is also an aspect of many African pieces that Simmons collected over the years. One of these, a diviner's cloak from West Africa, is adorned with leather-bound bundles containing magic formulae (Fig. 32). The term “gris-gris” often indicates the presence of amulets or power bundles; thus Dr. Gris-Gris has the power to grant one's wishes. Simmons' exploration of different painting techniques can be seen in The First Annual HooDoo Breakfast Party (2002), and Grey Matter (2003). Both are based on the use of sgraffito, reminding us of our own childhood scratching through black ink to reveal the colored crayon underneath (Figs. 9 and 10). In many paintings from this period biomorphic shapes, in earlier work linked with images, become free-floating cell-like organisms swimming in a matrix, as if under a microscope. These works also presage later configurations in which line is employed as a tool for binding shapes together. This connective device becomes a linking structure and, in its meandering, a source for the shapes themselves. Over the next few years, the work further evolves as Simmons shapes and reshapes elements from his earlier paintings. Forms appear to be gyrating in seas of various colors. After De Took all De Cud Take is an exercise in removal, as the white curtain of paint seems to absorb color (Fig. 11). Underlying shapes come through almost as muffled sounds. If there is a Jamaican creole lilt to the title, it is a result of time spent on repeated vacations to the island. As testimony to that, Simmons was declared an honorary Jamaican by that country's Consul General, at City Hall in New York several years ago. Another painting from that period, Mama, Der Three Duppy on Da Porch (2005) is inhabited by

10. Grey Matter #2 Oil and wax on canvas, 40 x 30 in., 2003

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11. After De Took all De Cud Take Oil and charcoal on canvas, 48 x 48 in., 2004

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tenuous, extended shapes, linked by line, that dance across the top, center, and bottom of a white field (Fig. 12). These duppy, creole for ghosts, are benign, colorful beings that cavort in space. In a series of works on paper, done in 2006, Simmons continues his exploration of line and shape in space. All are executed in oil, pastel, and charcoal. In Flights of Fancy, line and gesture are used to determine the shapes, which are then colored in and further isolated by the ocher background color, the last element to be applied (Fig. 13). In Rising Above, the same technique produces a different configuration (Fig. 14). Line again determines and defines the shapes that pile up in the lower quadrant of the drawing, then seem to evaporate into an atmospheric haze. In Jump Start, the interaction between line and shape creates strange, indeterminate creatures that seem to hover in front of the light ground (Fig. 15). A palpable sense of movement pervades each of these works, as if the kinetic energy that prompted the hand of the artist could have a life of its own and cavort about the page. During the following year, this trajectory continues. In a catalog accompanying a 2008 exhibition in Savannah, the curator Erin Dziedzic notes that “moving into 2007 and 2008, the abstract forms liven as they take on a much more relational and rhythmic quality. The linear compositions bend and swirl around one another, and the black outline containing the abstract elements falls away, allowing the forms to intertwine.�5 Shapes multiply prolifically in the aptly titled More Complicated Than They Seem, a mixed media work on paper from 2007 (Fig. 16). Background and foreground fuse, then separate as forms are pulled out, defined, pushed back in during the working process. Intricacy takes a lighter tone (in palette and theme) in The Complicated Things About My Father, done in oil and charcoal on canvas (Fig. 17). Shapes are defined in the center of the painting, but diffused at the outer edges, as if to imply that the complexities in question can only be partially grasped. Though the work can stand on its own without a title, the name of this work is bound to send the viewer on a search through his or her own complexities.

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12. Mama, Der Three Duppy on Da Porch Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in., 2005 Collection of Savannah College of Art and Design Photo by Mark Blackshear

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13. Flights of Fancy Oil, pastel, charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 in., 2006

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14. Rising Above Oil, pastel, charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 in., 2006

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15. Jump Start Oil, pastel, charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 in., 2006 Collection of Savannah College of Art and Design

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16. More Complicated Than They Seem Oil, pastel, charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 in., 2007 Photo by Mark Blackshear

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17. The Complicated Things About My Father Oil and charcoal on canvas, 30 x 40 in., 2007

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18. The Closest I’ve Yet Come to God Oil and charcoal on canvas, 22 x 30 in., 2007 Collection of Gayle DeWees Photo by Hayden Roger Celestin

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19. Broke and Now Thru Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in., 2007

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20. Things Have Changed Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in., 2008

Things Have Changed Detail

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During the same year, Simmons produced a number of paintings and works on paper. Among them, two especially striking works emerged. The Closest I've Yet Come to God expresses Simmons' perception of this as a culmination, a space within which energy, movement, and shape come together (Fig. 18). That synthesis prompts both artist and viewer to move beyond the temporal mode into a different more infinite or contemplative manner of perception. Simmons explains this and a related work entitled Broke and Now Thru (Fig. 19) as a letting go; of finally getting beyond struggle, to “let go and let God.” The title of the next work announces itself. In 2008, Things Have Changed (Fig. 20). While still centralized on the canvas, these loose spirals interact with one another, their boundaries determined by color rather than black lines. The result is to heighten a sense of joyous collision, as if these bumptious shapes were enjoying their activity. The spiral form is an ancient sign found in most world cultures. It has been interpreted as a sun sign or ---extrapolating from the rising and setting sun--- a symbol of birth, death, and rebirth; an infinite cycle of life. Spiral shapes dominate the next series of paintings and drawings. An oil on canvas from 2008 entitled Loose Me can be understood in two ways: as a request from the painter to the painting, to be released, or as an observation of a new-found freedom of expression (Fig. 21). Both interpretations may be true. The shapes are unbound from one another and, thus uncoupled, seem to seek the edges of the painting. Seeking Higher Ground, a mixed media work on paper, also done in 2008, is a further permutation on the theme of the spiral (Fig. 22). Excerpts from Simmons' poem Time to Paint (like a dance well done) comments on the enticements of both paint and poetry. My paints stretching themselves yawning and scratching at my surface waiting for dear sweet application and commitment …Hold me close and remember how clean I flowed into you like a dance well done6

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21. Loose Me Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in., 2008

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22. Seeking Higher Ground Oil, pastel, charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 in., 2008

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23. Beyond Heaven’s Gate Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 in., 2008 Photo by Mark Blackshear

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The paintings and drawings reproduced here represent more than ten years of Danny Simmons' work. In this catalog, they are presented in groups that signify stages in development of the larger body of work from which they were chosen. While every painting or drawing is complete in itself, it is still only one indication of the thoughts and aspirations of the painter. The added significance of words, titles, and poetry allow the viewer to begin to enter this world. Each work is but a piece, part of a whole that cannot be summed up in one work.

Theme and variations: collecting African art

To collect: to gather together, assemble or accumulate; but also to regain control of oneself, one's thoughts or composure. Collected: brought or placed together, forming an aggregation from various sources; but also having control of one's faculties. These dictionary definitions for the term “collect� articulate it as both an exterior and interior condition. A collection is defined as a group of objects accumulated for some purpose or as a result of some process. Regarding this particular collection, what is its purpose? What is the relationship between this collector and his collection? On one level, a collector may admire the aesthetics of an object, the juxtaposition of colors, or the way one form or material plays against another. At another level, the acquisition of a work of art captures the expressive power of the person who made it, bringing it, literally, within reach. Once in the collection, an object can be mined for meaning or inspiration that is either imputed to it or absorbed from it by the collector. This is a two-way process, especially when it involves an object from an unknown creator from a different culture, whose motivation for the piece may not be fully known. Meaning is assigned the piece by the collector, then extrapolated or interpreted to make sense in his own context, in his own culture.

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For Danny Simmons, both aesthetics and interpretive meaning are significant aspects of his impulse to collect. Another is his wish to redistribute gains from his own work. “I have a formula: I sell an artwork; I buy a piece of art, either African or contemporary.” He is fascinated by artistic ingenuity and tends toward pieces that combine materials in ways that intrigue and surprise him. The physicality of a given object is a starting point. When disparate elements are combined in a certain way, the resulting amalgam has the capacity to prompt wonder in the viewer, along with a sense of magic or transformative power. In this section are some of the objects that provide Simmons with this sense of altered reality and intrigue. Our exploration begins in West Africa and moves in geographical sequence across the continent.

Western Sudan

In Mali, strong male associations promulgated cultural mores through various initiation, judicial, and agricultural societies. The Bamana Komo Society was originally judicial in nature, acting as the “village and even regional police force, punishing murderers, thieves, debtors, and sorcerers.”7 The Komo Society and its masking traditions have been adopted by neighboring cultures in Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, including Senufo groups. Komo masks were believed to be repositories for nyama, forces conveyed into the mask, first by the carver and then by the ritualist who activated the mask (Fig. 24). These masks were created to instill fear and respect in people who beheld them, thus reinforcing edicts of the Society. Parts of animals, birds, plants, and minerals could be represented or attached to the masks, carrying both physical and symbolic attributes. Horns contain potent medicines, crocodile mouths devour, and vulture feathers denote wisdom. The surfaces of these masks become thick with blood, millet, and kola nut offerings, encrusted layers signifying power. It was believed that exceptional individuals could direct or manipulate that energy for human benefit.

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24. Komo mask Mande complex, Mali Wood, feathers 19 x 39 in.

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25. Komo mask Probably Senufo, Ivory Coast/Mali Wood, hornbill beak, horns, fur, twine 14 x 19 in.

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Komo is regarded as a 'speaking' kaceene (power spirit). A Burkinabe art historian, Boureima Diamitani, writes that these masks respond directly to their audience. “They speak, sing, dance, entertain, and transmit messages from the invisible world through masquerade, trance, and divination.�8 He notes that two Komo masks performed at the funeral of his father in 2002, indicating that the tradition continues, with families of carvers creating masks for a variety of Senufo and Bamana groups. Figure 25 shows a mask that may have been made for a Senufo Komo Society, with a domed head and bared teeth reminiscent of earlier Kponyugo (fire-spitter) forms. Attached to the mask are the beak of a hornbill, monkey fur, and assorted animal horns, carrying the symbolism of each creature into the amalgam. Even without specific understanding of each element, the viewer reacts to the whole as something mysterious and intimidating. Kulango and Nafana groups, located in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Ghana, share language with the Senufo, to whom they are related. A male figure from that area manifests energy that seems to come not from its sculptural volume but from its material applications (Fig. 26). Animal horns allude to or contain medicines, and symbolically transmit the power of the animal from which they were taken. Encrustation covers the entire figure. Such figures were often found in male and female pairs.9 Burkina Faso is the source for the patterned hawk mask shown in Figure 27. Tricolor pigmentation and geometric designs often adorn masks used by Mossi, Bwa, and Nuna cultures in this area. The meaning of each pattern is subject to local interpretation. This mask, either Bwa or Nuna in origin, incorporates circles, triangles, and square grids on a horizontal plane. According to Christopher Roy, concentric circles were sometimes interpreted as sacred wells that never go dry, while the checkerboard of black and white may refer to black and white hides that the initiates sat upon.10 The hawk is among a set of totemic and mythological characters that serve as links to the ancestors. Dancers perform these masks at initiations and important ceremonies.

26. Male figure Kulango/Nafana, Ivory Coast/Burkina Faso/Ghana Wood, horns, encrustation H. 35 in.

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27. Hawk mask Detail

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27. Hawk mask Bwa or Nuna, Burkina Faso Wood, black, red, white pigment

18 x 57 in.

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28. Hornbill mask Nuna, Burkina Faso Wood, black, red, white pigment

L. 37 in.

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Also from Burkina Faso, the Nuna mask in Figure 28 combines stylized human characteristics with the long beak of a hornbill. Clan or lineage affiliates possessed masks representing totemic animals like antelope, buffalo, bush pig, hornbill, or serpent. The hornbill mask was seen as a habitation for protective spirits that provided a family or lineage with health and prosperity. When a mask owner died, his mask might be retired and or sold into the antiquities market.11 Some masks were taken to reside on a family altar, there to receive periodic offerings. Figure 29 shows a clan mask, wan-noraogo (wan = mask, noraogo = rooster) with an encrusted surface and bits of feathers. The red undercolor on the beak is a remnant of its original coloration. Protective devices are also contained in items of clothing that were created for certain individuals. They are common to several cultures throughout West Africa. Figure 30 is a hunter's shirt covered with amulets, sometimes called gris-gris, leather or cloth packets containing any one of a variety of material considered magical or protective. Hair, written quotes from the Koran, plant matter, cloth, earth, ashes, and blood are ingredients that might be combined to create amulets following age-old recipes. The cumulative potency of the hunter's shirt protected the man during dangerous times. The following is a tribute celebrating a Mande hunter, Famori Keita, sung at his funeral in 1976: Give me a skull, man, I have no face-washing pot, Give me a hide, I lack a covering cloth. He gave me huge intestines for I had no sleeping cloth, He gave me some blood for face-washing-water, He gave me small intestines as the belt for my waist. Put the big tail in front of me as a room-sweeping brush, Give me a leg bone to use as a toothpick, Famori, the hunter is coming.12 The song salutes the hunter through a listing of visceral animal parts he might need upon his entry into the other world; some of these may also have been ingredients for gris-gris on a hunter's shirt.

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29. Rooster mask (Wan-noraogo) Mossi, Burkina Faso Wood, pigment, earth, feathers

8 x 16 in.

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30. Hunter’s shirt with amulets West Africa Woven raffia, leather, horns

H. 27 in.

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Figure 31 was probably made to augment a masquerade costume. This segment of woven raffia has side ties for attachment around the body or neck of a performer or of a mask. The piece has been equipped with horns, which denote the power of strong animals and have corollary use as containers for magic medicines. Cowries remind us of wealth, and also the foresight that divination brings. Figure 32, a cotton cloak covered with amulets, was perhaps worn by a diviner in the course of certain rituals. Each of these items called upon powers seemingly outside of normal human abilities, for help in times of uncertainty or danger.

West Africa In Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Guinea several cultures have long been known for their vigorous masking traditions. In this collection are pieces from the Dan, We (Guere), and Toma peoples. All were associated with men, either as members of various associations or as individuals. Figure 33 is an oval Dan mask with metal eyes, inset teeth, and a fur beard. The shape and metal-rimmed eyes are often seen in Dan masks that have smooth black surfaces. However, in this culture masks could change in function as they acquired status through success in masquerade presentations or through the dreams of their owners. The change of status was reflected in different surface treatments. The addition of an unkempt beard and real teeth, along with its mottled surface color, indicates that this mask may have become a wilder, more frightening spirit than it was when it began life. Masks from the neighboring We (Guere) began as frightful beings, as is apparent from their bold features and the aggressive material additions given them. Two facial types are typically found in We masquerade characters, both of which are shown here. In Figure 34 the mask has oval eyes, a broad nose, and a triangular mouth with inset teeth. Brass bells added prestige and perhaps an auditory element when the mask performed. The mask seen in Figure 35 is of the second type, with a bulging forehead, large open mouth, and tubular eyes that were intended to frighten spectators.

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31. Accessory to ritual costume Toma, Guinea Woven raffia, horns, cowries, bells

H. 16 in.

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32. Cloak with amulets West Africa Cotton, leather packets

H. 50 in.

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33. Mask with metal eyes Dan, Ivory Coast/Liberia Wood, metal, fur, teeth H. 23 in.

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34. Mask (gela) with bells We (Guere), Ivory Coast/Liberia Wood, cloth amulets, brass bells H. 15 in.

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35. Mask (gela) with tubular eyes We (Guere), Ivory Coast/Liberia Wood, leather, fur, braided hair, pigments

H. 25 in.

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Each mask, or gela, is considered a powerful entity, a liaison to the supernatural. They are appealed to for judgment and, like Dan masks, may advance in rank over their years in performance. Shown in Figure 36 are three miniature masks from the Toma (Loma) area of Liberia and Guinea. Carved in the shape of the larger Angbai mask, these miniatures were usually held by one Poro member during his lifetime. They provided individual protection, and could also be an added presence during sacrificial ceremonies conducted by other Poro members.

Guinea Coast While many African cultures are represented in Simmons' collection, he has special affinity for figurative assemblages from Fon, Ayizo, Ewe, Gen, Aja, and other cultures in coastal Republic of Benin and Togo (Figures 37-50). Vodun is the matrix within which these objects are made. It emphasizes acceptance of life's misfortunes but also encourages adherents to take an active part in shaping their own conditions. These figures play a role in self-empowerment. The name commonly applied to figurative power objects among the Fon and Ayizo of Benin is bocio, or “empowered (bo) cadaver (cio),” while non-figurative objects are called bo “empowerment objects.”13 Ewe believers term them vodu or tro, meaning possessed person, deity, spirit, fetish, or god-object. “Gorovodu priests say that they make or fabricate their gods.”14 Prior to 1900, when Vodun was associated with Dahomean royalty, its deities were ancestral and limited in number. Under French rule (1892-1958), after independence (1960) and into the early twentyfirst century, Vodun has expanded and adherents multiplied, in part by absorbing deities from other cultures, amalgamating their central characters with indigenous deities. In research on the new Vodun, Dana Rush (1997) writes of a vortex in which “Shango, Jesus, and Shiva are all Vodun; where al-Buraq becomes Mami Wata in flight; where Santa rings in the New Year of an Islamic Vodun; where Hindu gods and Vodun gods co-exist in symbiosis.”15

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36. Individual protective objects Toma, Ivory Coast/Guinea Wood, cowries, sacrificial encrustation

H. 3-5 in.

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37. Bocio figure holding metal cones Republic of Benin Wood, iron, red, white, black pigment

H. 20 in.

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38. Bocio figures with Asen Republic of Benin Wood, horns, cloth, iron, cowries

H. 23 in.

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39 a. Female bocio figure

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39 b. Female bocio figure Republic of Benin Wood, cloth, bottle, horn, twine, white pigment

H. 26 in.

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40. Female bocio bound in blue cloth Republic of Benin Wood, cloth, cowries, brass, white pigment

H. 29 in.

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Vodun adepts are chosen by the spirit they must attend; some spirits require their followers to observe not only Vodun holy days but Islamic and Christian ones as well. Shrines and Vodun churches are adorned with paintings that incorporate images from India, Europe, Brazil, and Africa. The bocio reproduced here come out of this late twentieth century amalgam. Bo and bocio are intended to address and deflect the wrongs that may befall an individual or family. Bocio are carved figures with assorted materials attached to them; bo are non-figurative bundles. Some are made by the family that has need of them; many are created by an adept or priest. To address a client's problem, the adept gathers materials, binding them to the figure with cloth, cord, or wire. The process of creation is visible; the accumulation of materials is chosen to counter a particular set of maladies or to protect an individual from aggression on the part of anyone who wishes harm to its owner. Some figures are bought and sold in the marketplace. They may be used once or several times by an individual. Other material assemblies act as offerings and are made to be used only once, placed on a path or crossroad and left there until they deteriorate. Each material added to an object carries symbolic meaning, but these are fluid and interpretations change---they offer clues but are not definitive. Each represents a way of reaching out to the invisible world, but it is impossible for outsiders to ascertain the real significance of a specific figure. Only the maker and the client know its exact purpose. Documentation of a range of Vodun practices by Suzanne Blier (1995), Dana Rush (1997), Judy Rosenthal (1998), and Edna Bay (2008) allow broad interpretations of the following figures to be attempted. The bocio in Figure 37 has red and white clay applied to the surface. These are the colors of Vodun that symbolically oppose blood-fire-heat with cool composure. Cloth bindings were sometimes taken from the funeral wrapping of an ancestor, either to call upon that person's spirit or to keep death from threatening the owner of the bocio. Metal cones may act as receptacles for medicinal materials. Each

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accumulation of materials is intended to remedy a particular set of maladies or to protect an individual from aggression. A doubled image with heads facing in opposite directions is usually a sign of heightened vigilance (Fig. 38). In this case, the effigy is set into a partial asen, symbolizing the durability and strength of the ancestors. Asen, small circular disks on a staff, were made by metalworkers at the request of a family to honor a deceased ancestor. Their use dates back to the royal kingdom of Dahomey, and the practice flourished during the early twentieth century, but declined as people moved about and clans fragmented. Some asen were discarded when families converted to Christianity. Perhaps these unwanted pieces made their way into some bocio presented here. Figure 39 shows a female bocio connected with water spirits, as indicated by two carved crocodiles bound to her back with red cloth. The same binding holds a medicine bottle to her midsection, along with two small carved figures, and horns for medicinal ingredients. White clay covers the figure, a sign of peace and protection; together with the red binding we recognize the signature colors of Vodun. Water deities are pervasive along coastal Africa. Nana Wango, or Grandmother Crocodile, is the name of an Ewe water deity. Her god-object form is said to be a “somewhat anthropomorphic” wood carving.16 The remarkable spirit known as Mami Wata can be most seductive; she can bring great wealth, but she may also destroy the very one who courts her.17 The figure pictured here is well carved, with a beautiful coiffure. The crocodiles she carries are signs that, like Mami Wata, she can be both protective and aggressive. Another female figure coated in white has cowrie shells bound to her midsection with blue cloth (Fig. 40). Cowries, once used as currency, hint at the cost of such a figure. They are believed to remind the figure to live up to its cost and work hard for its owner. Cowries are also a visual reference to Fa (Afa, Ifa) divination, in which thrown shells may be “read” to indicate the fate of a client.18 Accoutrements of another bocio figure include a cowrie-wrapped bundle, a medicine bottle, and small carved

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figures attached around its midsection (Figure 41). These figures may be dedicated to Dan, serpentgod of wind and rainbow, whose signal color is blue. The act of binding or tying together is critical to the effectiveness of bocio. When the activator assembles its constituent parts, he binds them to the figure with cord, cloth, or chain as a visual signal that “a particular action has taken place and that a desired result is now 'fixed in position.'�19 Placement of bundles over the stomach of a figure are intended to protect its owner from sorcery by confounding and deflecting malevolence directed at the stomach, believed to be the center of emotion. In Togo, Ewe people speak of having words on their stomach that need to be heard.20 The abdomen is vulnerable to outside forces, especially during altercations within the community. Quite another kind of assemblage is found in Figure 42. Its distorted, encrusted body may hide medicine-filled gourds, offering protection from sorcery, malevolence, disease, and death. Set into its elongated skull is a bifurcated iron axe that is the symbol of Hevioso, god of thunder and lightning. Its projecting stick arms hold an offering bowl. Figure 43 also bears an iron axe of Hevioso, bound onto its midsection, along with small carved figures. Other accoutrements include iron anklets and a bell attached to the figure with chain link. Atop its head is a ritual terracotta vessel, to contain a spirit or a medicine. Yet another bocio figure is encased in padlocks that bristle around his body (Figure 44). This language is clear: to fasten with a lock is to secure forever that which is sought.21 These various figures contact the earth in different ways, and may have been dedicated differently. According to Blier, a plinth or feet on a sculpture indicate a bocio that could be rededicated at any point during its life, to fill a different purpose for the same or another individual. To be rededicated, all ingredients are stripped off the figure, new ones are attached and the object is redirected to serve a new owner or purpose. Spike-ended bocio that entered the earth were reportedly dedicated only once. Male and female pairs are present in several variations. Figure 45 shows a bound pair with iron cones enclosed between them. Binding is similar to locking, as an act that secures a wish.

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41. Blue bocio figure with small figures Republic of Benin Wood, bottle, twine, cowries, blue pigment

H. 9 in.

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42. Bocio figure Republic of Benin Wood, cloth, cowries, iron, black encrustation

H. 19 in.

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43. Bocio with pot atop head Republic of Benin Wood, iron, cloth, chain, terra cotta

H. 29 in.

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44. Bocio with padlocks Republic of Benin Wood, metals H. 14 1â „2 in.

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45. Pair of bound figures Republic of Benin Wood, iron, cord, earth encrustation

H. 12 in.

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46. Bocio Pair Republic of Benin Wood, metal, bottle, binding, white pigment H. Male 33 in., Female 30 in.

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47. Bocio Pair Republic of Benin/ Togo Wood, cloth, cowries, pigments

H. Male 22 1â „2 in., Female 23 in.

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This pair is bound forever. Two other pairs stand individually (Figs. 46 and 47). Perhaps guardian figures, they were created so that the lower section could be sunk into the earth. In Figure 46, a knife is bound to the male, while the female bears a medicine bottle along with a carved, gun-shaped sidearm or club. The color white is evocative of water and rivers, where white clay is found. It also pays tribute to the high god Mawu, who is often paired with Lisa, her consort or co-deity of heavenly light. White is the color of peace and tranquility. Figure 47 shows another pair whose cone-shaped bases would have been implanted in the earth. The surface encrustation suggests several applications over time. Blier, in African Vodun, pictures three figurative pairs of Ouatchi and Ewe origin in Togo.22 She notes that in many pairs, the female is the larger of the two, since women are believed to have access to more magical power than men. Non-figurative bo can be made of horn, clay, cowries, metal, beads, leather, and horsehair. Because bo are often small in size, they could be carried by travelers, alleviating uncertainty and offering protection to a person in unfamiliar territory. Others may be left by a believer, at a spot directed by a diviner. The action of making and leaving the object constitutes its use and it is not retrieved. Gourds were also enlisted as protective devices (Fig. 48). Among the Fon, a gourd (go) is often equated with the human body. In this case, it occupies the position of a figurative carving with attachments bound to it. An Ewe carving from Togo illustrates the conflation of cultures that has occurred in this area (Fig. 49). Probably a shrine figure, this image has been adapted from chromolithographs of the god Dattatraya, a Hindu deity having three heads and multiple arms. Now incorporated into Vodun practice this deity, called Densu, is known as the husband of Mami Wata. In this figure, the color white and the accoutrements---sea shells, and blue and white beads---reinforce that interpretation. Paintings of Densu decorate Ewe Mami Wata shrines. “He is known to have three heads and six arms in order to be a quick thinker and a strong fighter.�23

48. Bo gourd Republic of Benin Calabash, leather, wood, feathers H. 15 in.

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49. Densu shrine figure Ewe, Togo Wood, shells, beads, white pigment

H. 20 in.

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Another aspect of Ewe Vodun practice is seen in the group of small figures dressed in white eyelet (Fig. 50). Unlike the rough, encrusted aesthetic of bocio figures, these small effigies are carved to be proportionally correct within the Ewe canon. They are smooth and polished, indicating the care they have been given. These figures commemorate deceased individuals and often reside with the Vodun priestess of the cult in which they were active. Family members may also own and care for such figures. Combinations of materials characterize other pieces in this collection as well. From the Yoruba in Nigeria comes the ile ore or “house of the head” shown in Figure 51. Commissioned by one individual, it would have enclosed and sheltered a small cowrie and cloth figure representing the identity or destiny of the owner. Cowries signify wealth; the bird symbolizes transcendence and ase or vital energy. The mirrors could act as reflecting surfaces, but also provided entry into another space suggestive of divination or peering into the future. From the Ekiti Yoruba comes the mask shown in Figure 52. Made of a cloth-wrapped gourd, it has inset teeth and a cord appliqué coiffure covered with black, tarry pigment. The face is colored with red earth. Also from Nigeria, two masks from the Igbo culture were associated with and performed by young men. Figure 53 shows an Agaba mask with a distended mouth, carved to emphasize exaggerated teeth. Contemporary enamel pigments retain the traditional white, black, red color scheme. Figure 54, an Mgbadike mask has large polychrome wood horns attached to a ferocious visage, also having enlarged teeth. Writing of Igbo religion, Emifie Metuh notes that masquerades (mmo) are believed to bring back spirits of deceased ancestors and friends. These are grouped into three categories: young maiden spirits (Agbogho Mmo), spirits of young men (Agaba, Epidike, and Mgbadike), and those of elders (Oke Mmo). He explains that “the outfit and masks of the mgbadikes and the agaba, symbolize the strength, roughness and daring associated with young men. The faces wear very ferocious and awesome looks, and are sometimes fitted with a set of large threatening teeth.”24

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50. Figures in white eyelet Ewe, Togo Oiled wood, cotton H. 7-9 in.

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51. Ile Ore, House of the Head Yoruba, Nigeria Cloth, mirrors, cowries, cane

H. 25 in.

101


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52. Gourd mask Ekiti Yoruba, Nigeria Calabash, cloth, cord, red, black pigment

H. 13 in.

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53. Agaba mask Igbo/Igala, Nigeria Wood, leather, white, red, black enamel

H. 14 in.

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54. Mgbadike mask Igbo/Igala, Nigeria Wooden horns, conglomerate face, polychrome

104

H. 29 in.


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Since Igbo culture does not recognize centralized authority, the mmo are important carriers of continuity within each group. Another Igbo mask in this collection has an elaborate openwork superstructure made of individual sections pieced together and polychromed (Fig. 55). With its open mouth and bared teeth, it may represent a contemporary interpretation of older male masquerade types.

Central Africa A male association in Cameroon was responsible for the creation of the costume shown in Figure 56. In central and western kingdoms, Kwifoyn Societies exercised both ritual and judicial roles. Each Kwifoyn house held a cache of masks and costumes that would appear in local festivities. Costumes like this, created to wear with a prominent “leader” mask, were made inside a Kwifoyn house, and embellished with the hair of each of its members. Thus, though a single dancer wore it in the masquerade, all of the members were represented.25 The Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola were the origin for several protective figures in this collection (Figures 57-59). In their accumulative surface attachments, they bring to mind the Fon and Ewe figures already discussed. Indeed, there are similarities in the way that these widely separated cultures conceived of and used their material objects. Among the Songye, small figures were made to guard an individual owner, while larger figures protected an entire community. Figure 57 is of the latter type. Ingredients in each case were identified and attached to the figure by the divination specialist (nganga). These were considered more important than the sculpture, since they carried significant attributes into the figure. Attachments included animal skins, metal, cloth, feathers, and horns. In these resided the power and authority of the figure. Some had copper repoussé on the face to indicate its ability to protect against lightning and by implication against other untoward events. Figure 57 is equipped with long poles so that its human bearers could carry it about. By about 1980 large figures had already fallen out of use, though smaller ones were retained.26

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Small protective figures were also used by Kongo and Teke individuals (Fig. 58 and 59). Among the Teke, these reliquary figures (buti) were identified with specific ancestors and maintained in a family shrine to ward off witchcraft. The center of the body was equipped with a bundle (bonga) that might be filled with earth from the grave of the deceased, along with other ingredients chosen to address particular problems. The figure could be rededicated if it became ineffective. “If a buti's power was dissipated, a ritual specialist could remove the bonga and subsequently provide another client with the same artifact, now invested with fresh bonga.”27 Small Kongo nkisi, wrapped figures or bundles, were prescribed and assembled by a diviner to address a problem presented by a client. Each nkisi was empowered differently. “Each person chooses an nkisi to correspond to his illness. One would not, for example, take nkisi Mwe Nsundi for a headache. For a pain in the stomach one would not take nkisi Mbwanga. Whichever nkisi causes the trouble, that is the one which gives the cure.28 The Chokwe span the southern border of the Republic of Congo and extend into Angola. Their term for mask is mukishi, from the root word kishi, meaning an active, living force.29 Masks are created by men, but once completed they have their own will and power. Figure 60 shows a large mask made of vegetable fibers tied over a twig framework. A long pole extends from the nose to the top of the horn-like top. It is a characterization of Chikunza, who promises fertility and good hunting. It is named for a certain grasshopper; the rings in its headpiece are said to depict rings of growth on the horns of an antelope.30 This mask is one of a set of four fiber masks that were used during the initiation and circumcision of young boys. Each mask was painted in red, white, and black geometric patterns. Because fiber is fragile and impermanent, it is rare that such masks survive their use in the community.

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55. Mask with elaborate superstructure Igbo, Nigeria Wood piecework, polychrome 32 x 31 in.

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56. Kwifoyn Society tunic Grassfields, Cameroon Woven raffia, human hair

24 x 35 in.

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57. Protective figure Songye, Democratic Republic of Congo Wood, fur, metal, raffia, horns H. 18 in.

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58. Protective figures Teke, Democratic Republic of Congo Wood, earth, resin H. left 10 in., right 12 in.

110


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59. Protective figures Kongo, Angola/Democratic Republic of Congo Wood, mirror, shells H. left 8 in., right 5 in.

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60. Chikunza mask Chokwe, Democratic Republic of Congo/Angola Raffia, wood, pigments H. 81 in.

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A Sum of Parts Within this field of vision are samplings from many cultures, a veritable cacophony of voices from multiple communities. The focus of this collector is on neither age nor beauty, but rather on the way that different elements come together to form another visual language. The assembling of incongruent parts, like the sampling of hip hop, reaches a point where it becomes a new thing. Within this group of objects that Simmons has gathered, one finds echoes of concepts that also apply to some of his paintings, particularly in the amalgamation of disparate elements. His own combination of Picasso/Lam/Santeria/Abstract Expressionism finds equivalence and inspiration in things made of wood/bone/iron/shell/fur/horn. The notion of tying or binding occurs in both groups of work. Shapes are not physically bound in the paintings, as they are in the objects, but are bound by line. Line ties one painted shape to another and creates visual links among them. The notion of hidden revelation is also shared by both the African objects and the paintings. In Simmons' work leading into and including the Book of Spells, the medium, paint or pastel, is used to create and then obliterate or obscure shapes just under the surface. As the bocio activator realized, the play between what is revealed and what is concealed lends mystery and power to a work. The connection with mystery and the unknown leads to the possibility of spiritual interpretation in both groups of work.

Donna Page

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ENDNOTES

1 Biographical information and quotations by Danny Simmons are taken from interviews and phone conversations with the author, 2007-2009. 2 Simmons 2004 p. 160 3 Simmons 2007 unpaged 4 Ibid. 5 Dziedzic unpaged 6 Simmons 2007 7 Imperato p. 166 8 Diamitani p. 18 9 Preston, George; personal communication with Leonard Kahan 2008 10 Roy 1987 p. 297 11 Ibid. p. 221 12 Camara, in McClusky p. 67 13 Blier p. 2 14 Rosenthal p. 1 15 Rush p. 2 16 Rosenthal p. 61 17 Drewal p. 128. Fig. 7-3, a painting by Sim Simaro chronicling a man's seduction and demise at the hands of Mami Wata. 18 Blier pp. 255-258 19 Ibid. p. 82 20 Rosenthal p. 56 21 In 21st century Rome, padlocks are sold on the Ponte Milvio to couples who affix their lock to the bridge to symbolize eternal love (New York Times “Love Rite on a Bridge” 8/6/07). 22 Blier pp. 28, 34 and 285, Figures 20, 22, and 131 23 Rush p. 107 24 Metuh p. 17 25 Page p. 37 26 Hersak p. 140 27 LaGamma p. 303 28 Nsemi, in MacGaffey p. 63 29 Wastiau p. 44 30 Ibid. p. 83

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Blier, Suzanne P. African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Bay, Edna. Asen, Ancestors and Vodun. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Camara, Seydou. “Hunter's Tribute” in McClusky, Pamela. Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back. Seattle and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. Diamitani, Bouriema T. “Observing Komo among Tagwa People in Burkina Faso”. African Arts 41:3, p. 18, 2008. Drewal, Henry J. Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2008. Dziedzic, Erin. “Experiencing the Inner Necessity in Contemporary Abstraction” in Danny Simmons: Spiritual Rhythms. Georgia: Savannah College of Art and Design, 2008. Imperato, Pascal J. “Surface Symbols: The Meanings of Color, Patina, Encrustation, and Design on Bamana Sculpture” in Surfaces: Color, Substances, and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture, Page, Kahan and Imperato, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. LaGamma, Alisa. Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. MacGaffey, Wyatt. Astonishment and Power. Washington D.C.: National Museum of African Art, 1994. Metuh, Emefie. African Religions in Western Conceptual Schemes: The Problems of Interpretation. Ibadan: Claverianum Press, 1985. Page, Donna. A Cameroon World. New York: QCC Art Gallery Press, 2007. Rosenthal, Judy. Possession, Ecstasy, and Law in Ewe Voodoo. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Roy, Christopher. Art of the Upper Volta Rivers. Meudon: Chaffin, 1987. Rush, Dana. Vodun Vortex: Accumulative Arts, Historic and Religious Consciousness Along Coastal Benin. PhD Dissertation: University of Iowa, 1997. Simmons, Danny. I Dreamed My People Were Calling But I Couldn't Find My Way Home. Atlanta, GA: Moore Black Press, 2007. _____ Three Days as the Crow Flies. New York: Washington Square Press, 2004. Wastiau, Boris. Chokwe. Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2006.

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LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

page

Rabordaille (Wifredo Lam)

25

The Complicated and Ongoing Search for Suitable Objects of Worship

26

The Division of Heaven and Earth

27

The Painter

29

Tied to the Whipping Post

30

Dr. Gris-Gris Book of Potent Spells & Portents

33

Spell to Rekindle Lost Love

35

Sold Auction Lot 2001 1 Male Nigra

37

The First Annual HooDoo Breakfast Party

39

Grey Matter

41

After De Took all De Cud Take

42

Mama, Der Three Duppy on Da Porch

44

Flights of Fancy

45

Rising Above

46

Jump Start

47

More Complicated Than They Seem

48

The Complicated Things About My Father

49

The Closest I've Yet Come to God

50

Broke and Now Thru

51

Things Have Changed

53

Loose Me

55

Seeking Higher Ground

56

Beyond Heaven's Gate

57

Komo Mask Mande complex, Mali

60

Komo Mask Ivory Coast/Mali

61

Male Figure Kulango/Nafana Ghana/Ivory Coast

63

Hawk Mask Bwa/Nuna Burkina Faso

65

Hornbill Mask Nun, Burkina Faso

66

Rooster Mask Mossi Burkina Faso

69

Hunter's Shirt West Africa

70 116


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page

Accessory to ritual costume Toma Guinea

72

Cloak with Amulets West Africa

73

Mask with Metal Eyes Dan Ivory Coast/Liberia

74

Mask (gela) with Bells We (Guere) Ivory Coast/Liberia

75

Mask (gela) with Tubular Eyes We (Guere) Ivory Coast/Liberia

76

Individual Protective Objects Toma Ivory Coast/Guinea

78 - 79

Bocio Figure with Metal Cones Republic of Benin

80

Bocio Figure with Asen Republic of Benin

81

Female Bocio Figure Republic of Benin

83

Female Bocio in Blue Cloth Republic of Benin

84

Blue Bocio Figure Republic of Benin

88

Bocio Figure Republic of Benin

89

Bocio with Pot atop Head Republic of Benin

90

Bocio with Padlocks Republic of Benin

91

Pair of Bound Figures Republic of Benin

92 - 93

Bocio Pair Republic of Benin

94

Bocio Pair Republic of Benin/Togo

95

Bo Gourd Republic of Benin

97

Densu Shrine Figure Ewe Togo

98

Figures in White Eyelet Ewe Togo

100

Ile Ore House of the Head Yoruba Nigeria

101

Gourd Mask Ekiti Yoruba Nigeria

102

Agaba Mask Igbo/Igala Nigeria

103

Mgbadike Mask Igbo/Igala Nigeria

104

Mask with Superstructure Igbo Nigeria

107

Kwifoyn Society Tunic Grassfield Cameroon

108

Protective Figure Songye Democratic Republic of Congo

109

Protective Figures Teke Democratic Republic of Congo

110

Protective Figures Kongo Angola/Democratic Republic of Congo

111

Chikunza Mask Chokwe Angola /Democratic Republic of Congo

112

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This publication was printed by Editorial MIC, Spain for the QCC Art Gallery, The City University of New York in an edition of 300. March 2010


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HOUSE OF SPIRIT  

HOUSE OF THE SPIRIT THE WORK AND COLLECTION OF DANNY SIMMONS

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